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Rezoning Spurs Drive to Recall 4 on Council


Angry opponents of a city plan to control housing density began circulating a petition this week to recall all but one of five City Council members on grounds that the proposal is unnecessary and would drive poor, mostly Latino residents from Bell Gardens.

City Clerk Leanna Keltner this week approved the petition submitted by the Bell Gardens No-Rezoning Committee to recall Mayor Robert Cunningham and council members Letha Viles, Allen Shelby and Douglas O'Leary. The group has 60 days to gather 1,247 signatures of registered Bell Gardens voters.

"Our trust in the council is gone," said Mary Ann Barron, one of the four Bell Gardens residents circulating the recall petition. "I can't rest easy knowing that they are up there. We begged. We pleaded. We went to all the council meetings and they treated us like children. We tried every legal way to demand our rights and they have been violated. We have no other choice."

Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez, who was appointed to the council in April, was spared by the committee because state law requires that a public official must hold office at least 90 days before he or she can be recalled.

The recall petition charges that the four council members have not acted as representatives of the Bell Gardens community and have been unwilling to listen and respond to concerns about "housing, economic development and citizens' rights."

In a printed rebuttal to the charges listed on the petition, Viles and Shelby said the recall is being led by apartment "slumlords" who fear that the rezoning plan will put them out of business.

"Don't be fooled. Know who is behind the recall," Shelby wrote.

Cunningham and O'Leary emphasized the work of the council, such as improving police service, providing senior citizen housing and a comprehensive transportation system, and appointing Hernandez, the first Latino on the council.

The No-Rezoning Committee, an organization of residents, property owners, real estate agents and business people, has been threatening a recall since last September. At that time, city officials revealed a new zoning map designed to control the city's increasing population density by drastically reducing the number of apartment building and housing units that can be built on one lot. About one-third of the city's 9,200 residential properties would be rezoned.

The zoning changes, which would not take effect for a minimum of 20 years, also would eradicate the hodgepodge of homes, businesses and manufacturing industries in some areas and create uniform neighborhood blocks.

Although the ordinance that defines the map and how many dwelling units would be allowed per lot has not yet been written, in some cases residents would be forced to move, city officials have acknowledged. Businesses would have to move from residential or manufacturing areas, and residents from commercial or manufacturing zones.

Most of the changes are aimed at preventing unlimited residential development. Those who have too many dwelling units on their property might be required to demolish some units or combine them with others.

A pitched battle between city officials and the No-Rezoning Committee has raged fiercely since September.

Members of the committee have stormed City Council meetings accusing the council of trying to rid the city of its poor, mostly Latino residents by eliminating affordable housing. They argue that the changes are extreme, unnecessary and discriminatory.

City officials, impatient and weary of defending themselves, point to the city's crowded schools, congested streets and strained sewer systems, and argue that something must be done to keep the city's growing population from overwhelming city systems and services. Bell Gardens is one of the most densely populated cities in the county, according to Regional Planning Commission records.

The council gave its final approval to the plan in January. In February, the Bell Gardens No-Rezoning Committee and the League of United Latin American Citizens filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court asking that the zoning map be declared void. In March, the two groups gathered enough signatures to force a special election that would let the voters decide whether the city should be rezoned. City officials promptly challenged the referendum in court.

Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Huss ruled in favor of the city.

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